Why I hate Jax on 'Sons of Anarchy' and the brilliance of Kurt Sutter
[SPOILER ALERT: Read only if you are all up to speed on the events of Sons of Anarchy.]
I’m done rooting for Jax Teller. And when I say done, I don’t mean done like some of the characters on Sons of Anarchy who keep talking about leaving Charming and then never do. (Seriously, what’s up with that? Is there a giant dome keeping them trapped in the town like on that Stephen King CBS show?)
I wrote an email to EW’s resident SOA expert Mandi Bierly after Tuesday night’s penultimate episode with just three words: “I hate Jax.” And how could I not? THE BASTARD GUNNED DOWN UNSER FOR CRISSAKES!!! Unser, who always protected the club. Unser, who had become the conscience of the show after anyone else with a conscience was either killed off (Opie, Piney) or lost it long ago (Jax). Unser, who is terminally ill. When Jackie boy killed Unser—who was only trying to protect his assailant from offing his own mother—he became impossible to root for. And therein lies the genius of Sons of Anarchy.
Okay, let’s back up a little. Sons creator Kurt Sutter did something pretty brilliant in last season’s finale. He had Jax’s mom (Gemma) kill Jax’s wife (Tara). This move went beyond mere shock value—although it certainly was shocking. It set the table for the final season and Jax’s revenge. Fueled by a lie cooked up by Gemma and Juice about Chinese rivals being the ones responsible for Tara’s death, Jax went on a bloody, rage-filled quest for revenge, killing just about everyone in his path. Okay, most of these folks being offed were scumbags, so it was easy to excuse and overlook. But then Jax murdered some poor saps that were on his side, framing them to set up his master plan. And then he killed a fellow Sons president (Jury White) and lied about Jury admitting to being a rat who had betrayed the club. Is the one life of his wife that much more important than all of these other innocents?
Sutter was doing the same thing that all the great anti-hero shows of the past decade have done: daring us to continue rooting for the person at the center of the show, no matter how terrible they become. We’ve been trained our whole lives to root for the protagonist. It’s their story, so naturally they become the “good” guy. But what happens when they are not so good? Tony Soprano killed Christopher, even after Christopher repeatedly chose the family over flipping or fleeing with Adrianna. We’re still supposed to pull for him after that? Vic Mackey on The Shield murdered a fellow cop in cold blood in the very first episode! And yet you felt part of yourself still wishing for him to get away with it at the very end—even after he destroyed Shane and backstabbed Ronnie. Ronnie!—in what I would argue is the best series finale of all time. Walter White freakin’ poisoned a little kid just to manipulate someone’s loyalty on Breaking Bad, and yet part of us still wanted him to continue outsmarting the authorities. What is wrong with us?!?
All of these examples challenged us and the way we are supposed to relate to the characters and their lives we have become so invested in. It’s a dangerous game for showrunners—you make your character too bland and they become boring; too despicable and you turn people off. The whole arc of Sons of Anarchy for a long time was Jax butting heads with his villainous stepfather Clay while becoming more and more like him every day. It has been a fascinating arc to follow, but you always assumed he would eventually find redemption before all was said and done. And in some ways, perhaps he has. We saw him come clean with the other Sons presidents and admit to lying about Jury. He is aware that “mayhem has to land,” and that landing spot is likely right on him. He appears to have accepted that fate.
Which is what makes his gunning down of Unser so shocking. I am equally impressed and horrified that Sutter decided to go that far. In my eyes, that one act makes Jax completely irredeemable. People that are still able to forgive Jax for that—and there are many of them judging by the people I have spoken with—will point out that he gave Wayne repeated warnings before he fired and that Unser inserted himself into a situation he should have just left alone. Fair points. But still, IT’S UNSER! A good man, with good intentions, and someone who bailed Jax and the club out time and time again. The fact that Jax would put his own personal grudge above that is flat out brutal. We are conditioned to root for the protagonist and excuse his misdeeds along the way, so it is almost as if by having his lead character commit this heinous act, that Sutter is attempting to make us as positively uncomfortable as possible. That is the boldest form of art imaginable—making you rethink your entire approach to characters for whom you once held dear fondness. (By the way, I have no problem with Jax killing Gemma, which maybe seems odd with she being his mother and all, but seriously—the woman had it coming.)
I have no idea what Sutter has in store for Tuesday night’s finale, but I am firmly hoping for Jax to pay for his sins—same as Clay, same as Gemma. It’s maybe the first time I have rooted for a show’s main character to be killed, and so in that sense what Sutter has accomplished is extraordinary. That doesn’t mean Jax has to die for the finale to work. Bad people (or good people who do bad things) get off all the time. For me, the success of the Sons of Anarchy finale will not rest on whether Jackson Teller lives or dies. Just the fact that I even want the latter is a success in itself.
Follow Dalton on Twitter: @DaltonRoss
Kurt Sutter’s original series, starring Charlie Hunnam, Ron Perlman, and Katey Sagal.